The Phantom of the Opera (1999)

     by Philip J. Riley

This book is absolutely fabulous and amazing. Find and love it.

As always with nonfiction works, there's no grade, but I almost wish I were grading it, so I could give it a big sloppy A. This book, which is a monstrous, painstaking, and in-depth look into the making and history of the 1925 film starring Lon Chaney, is without a shadow of a doubt one of the best examples I've seen of someone translating their love for a subject into a fantastic and informative treatise. I've mentioned before that I'm not a film student, but now, I almost want to be. That's how excellent this book is at what it does.

 

One of the first things to notice about this book is that it is positively brimming over with photographs. But these are not just the same five publicity stills of Lon Chaney that I've seen approximately eight kazillion times by this point; they're a wonderful (and enormous) collection of images that includes film stills that were cut from the picture before it was screened, candid backstage and on-set photos, production and concept art, and even close-up comparison shots for detail. I don't know photography from horseradish most of the time, but even I'm impressed by the phenomenal level of dedication that must have been required to find, acquire, and lovingly reproduce them all just where they complement the text the most. And, while I'm at it, I'd like to note that the book itself, which is almost a collage in style with its text often interspersed with images and photocopies seemingly at random, is excellently laid out; despite the proliferation of varying material and various formats, it's laid out appealingly and makes every page interesting to peruse, even if Riley happens to just be talking about film processes (which he does, at length, and I'm pretty sure I would have been way more bored if the book hadn't been so busily awesome all around this discussion).

 

The second, more (in fact, most) important thing to notice about this book is that it informs a largely unsuspecting populace that they have seen the wrong film. The version of the 1925 film that is readily available to audiences today is not, in fact, the original; rather, it is a heavily edited, cut, re-filmed, and expurgated version from 1929 that replaced the original in a re-release. Immediately, of course, I was offended by the idea that I might have reviewed a less-than-original version of the film - I'm supposed to do all the versions of the story! - and sure enough, when I investigated my DVD, I discovered that it's short about 35 minutes of film that this book claims should be there, and other things (such as the inclusion of Carlotta's mother, remember that?) are elements that Riley states were added in the 1929 re-issue. Well, beat me with a tire iron. I've been had. Riley goes on to reassure me that this is not entirely my fault, though.

 

I will mention the one tiny blemish in this book: it is plagued with typos and small grammatical errors. It's nothing heinous, mostly simple accidents or nomadic commas, but it's recurring and clearly the result of a lack of editing rather than just typesetting errors. Because the book is so fabulous, however, and because it's so obviously a very intelligent and informed work by someone with a huge font of passion and enthusiasm for the subject but possibly no English degree, I didn't mind these problems too much. I did write page numbers down every time they occurred until I got tired of it, but the truth is that the errors weren't all that intrusive.

 

Before diving into the film, however, Riley takes us on a jaunt off to France to investigate the novel and its author a bit, which I appreciate greatly (hey, look, ma - somebody else paying attention to source material!). His thoughts on Erik's relation to the Faust legend are intriguing, as is his note that this is yet another example of literary dissemination (i.e., Gounod's opera, which is based on Goethe's text, which is based on Marlowe's play, which is based on folklore...). One of the more interesting features of this chapter is Riley's careful research into events surrounding productions of Faust and the Opera Garnier which, Riley says according to Leroux's notes, influenced his writing of the original novel. Note is made of the fact that many prisoners kept in the massive opera basements during and following the Siege of Paris were never found, making it possible for there to be skeletal remains uncovered by surprise, and that there were rumored to be Communard torture chambers in the vaults as well, which served as inspiration for Erik's own torture chamber; likewise, an incident in 1896 when a thousand-pound counterweight for the chandelier fell in an electrical accident and killed a woman is noted as inspiration for the idea of the whole chandelier falling, and the pushy, demanding prima donna Mme. Miolan-Carvalho who sang in the original premiere of Gounod's opera is mentioned as the template for Carlotta.

 

Even more interesting, however, are the outline notes that Riley attributes to Leroux, including an original plan to describe Erik's background as a child who went mad after being left behind in the cellars of the opera house after the Siege (well, look at that - that's more than a little bit like the growing up in the cellars background attributed to the Phantom in the 1998 Argento/Sands film, isn't it? I wonder if Argento had read this, or if he thought he was making it up first). Riley's access to some surviving portions of Leroux's personal library also yields quite a bit of information on John Merrick, the "Elephant Man", and an anecdotal article in which he wept and said that he had almost died "of joy" the first time a woman had smiled at him and shaken his hand, which it is suggested might be a powerful influence on Erik's redemption via Christine's kiss and his ensuing weeping response. His investigation of Leroux's notes also claims that the writer settled on a physician's account of congenital pophyria as the condition from which Erik suffered (a very nasty medical condition including photosensitivity, nervous disorders, and leprosy-like decay of the body's softer parts). Finally, he claims that Leroux's notes state that he envisioned the story as a sort of combination of the Faust legend and the Beauty and the Beast fairytale - which is what I've been saying all along. Nice to know I'm not making things up for once, eh?

 

Of course, these are a lot of things just being thrown about willy-nilly, so I had a look at his sources. Not only does he list the Opera Garnier as one of the stops on his journey, but he also spent time at La Maison des Ecrivains, the Parisian society for the preservation and promotion of French literature, and at the French embassy. Which is certainly more exposure to the French origins of things than I've had; I think it's reasonable to take his word, though I would have liked a more thorough documentation of his sources (of course, he's really not a literature buff the same way I'm not a film buff, so I understand, at least). In case anyone was concerned about his film sources, those are impeccable; not content just to poke around the Motion Picture division of the Library of Congress or to bother an impressive list of other archivists, he also spoke with (and recorded interviews with, which you can read here!) several people who were actively involved in the film, including Mary Philbin, film's very first Christine, and the Chaney estate.

 

All right. I'm satisfied that he isn't just making things up as he goes along. This book does rub some Phantom scholars the wrong way because so much of it is based on original research by Riley himself; these are not interviews or experience notes that can be looked up and verified in other materials, which makes some folks nervous. Use your judgment, y'all.

 

A film that I haven't encountered even mention of before is brought up here: a 1915 "knockoff" of the Phantom story called The Phantom of the Violin, directed by Frances Ford. I've never heard of it before because, like many other silent films of the teens and early twenties, it appears that all copies of the negatives and reels have been lost or destroyed, leaving the film to be discovered only through oblique mention by other sources. If this is true, the 1915 film would be the very first remake or interpretation of the Phantom story, filmed only a handful of years after the novel made its debut, but it looks like we'll never know (sadness. So much sadness). Whether or not this is the same as the 1916 Das Phantom der Oper, otherwise pretty well-known as the first film version and also tragically lost, is hard to tell; there just isn't much information to go on.

 

Riley's account of the original story planned for the 1925 film is a treat, partly because it's so far removed from the final product and so reminiscent of a lot of the crazier adaptations made much later. The original plan had Christine as a worldly, attention-enjoying woman who spurned Raoul's innocent, boring love in favor of the Phantom, whose refusal to ever meet in person allowed her to enjoy his adoration without any consequences or demands being placed on her; the Phantom was a much more charming, human-like figure, even laughing and dancing and eating with Christine before being unmasked. Christine, in her zeal to escape him after he is revealed, steals his revolver (gunslinger Christine!) and shoots her way out of his rooms, escaping to the surface on her own (again, reminiscent of that bananas 1998 Argento/Sands film - no other film Christine has ever gotten close to rescuing herself. again, I wonder if Argento happened across some of the same sources that Riley did...). This version of the Phantom was strongly representative of age and decay, and Christine, shaken by the image of living mortality, decides to marry Raoul in order to take advantage of him while she still has the alluring blush of her youth. The climax of the film features the daroga shooting Erik dead, which may have been some of the inspiration for the 1994 Jones comic that involved the daroga busting out a revolver.

 

The changes in this version are intriguing to speculate on; Christine's re-characterization has a double effect, both casting her as more capable female figure to appeal to women audiences (and, in fact, some note is made of the fact that especially during and right after the war, the majority of theatre-goers were women), and also providing a self-involvement that helps cast the Phantom in a more easily sympathetic light in order to play up the conflict between his violent nature and his attractive qualities. I'd theorize that the daroga shooting Erik provided the sort of "justice" that audiences might be looking for in the time period; Leroux's ending, while very poignant, might not have played satisfactorily to an audience that wanted to see the source of their terror repaid in kind.

 

Of course, this version of the film didn't actually get made - primarily, Riley says, because Chaney rejected it as being too great in deviation from the source material (another interesting factoid that Riley has introduced me to is the fact that Chaney did as much directing of the film as Julian did; he was adamant about all of his own scenes and instrumental in directing many of Mary Philbin's, as well, often in opposition to Julian's plans). The second version come up with, tentatively titled The Phantom Swordsman, is even more bizarre; playing on the post-World War I tensions of the time period, it was set earlier than Leroux's novel and revolved around the Franco-Prussian war. The Phantom was referred to exclusively as The Red Death (perhaps the scriptwriter was a Poe fan more than a Leroux fan?) and Christine became a Red Cross nurse, aiding wounded soldiers in the opera house's interior, which was gutted and made into a hospice. One interesting feature of this story is the fact that Christine gets used to the Red Death's face, no longer fearing it after some time; the fear of the character comes rather from the fact that he is revealed to be the dreaded Scourge, a Communard leader with a massive army hiding in the underground.

 

This version of the film saw the Red Death hailed at the end as a hero for resisting Napoleon III, despite his disfigured face (which had a backstory like the later films, in which he was facially wounded by a soldier's bayonet in childhood). This version's Christine is quite different from the first, having been elevated to a saving position (as a nurse) for a great number of people rather than being simply the Phantom's salvation (and, in fact, she isn't really his salvation at all); the image of a pure, kind nurse tending the wounded must have been a powerfully attractive one for a nation still recovering from the experience of the first World War. The Phantom's abrupt shift from outcast monster to frightening but ultimately admirable political figure is probably a function of the popularity of war movies during the time period, and a move toward making the Phantom less of a terrible figure that might frighten audiences too much. This is by far one of the weirdest versions I've yet seen.

 

Considering all these shenanigans, and the fact that some poor writer was handed both scripts and the original book and told to pull it all together into a cohesive plot, it's amazing that this is the closest live-action film to the original. Riley does a fantastic job of sifting out all the little details that might interest a fan of either the silent film or the Phantom story - for example, the fact that the violin was kept until the very final draft and then omitted from the script, or the fact that many original scenes from the novel, including the scene in which Raoul shoots at Erik, were omitted because they were too frightening, or his faithful reproductions of some truly marvelous concept art and animation frames that were used in promoting the film are all prime examples of his obvious love for this piece of cinema history. I was interested to learn that the carriage used in the final carriage chase scene (which, incidentally, was placed in the film almost at the last minute; the original ending had Erik dying of a broken heart as in the novel, but the studio felt that this was too unbelievable and cheated the audience out of seeing Erik get his comeuppance) and the military uniforms worn by Raoul and several others in the film were actual items that had been used in the war, which the producer purchased from the deposed Austrian emperor Karl.

 

I was also fascinated to learn that Arthur Carewe, who played the daroga ("Ledoux" in the final cut of the film), had played Svengali (likely one of Leroux's inspirations for the character of Erik) in the film adaptation of Trilby in 1922. I was amazed to learn that the art designer for the sets was a native of Paris who had worked at the Opera Garnier, enabling him to create an exceptionally faithful and evocative set. In short, I was so pleased my head almost popped. Despite copious typos, the exhaustive pages of comparisons between the artist's designs and the finished sets are stunning; it's almost a sure bet that no modern film would end up with a set so close to the artist's initial vision.

 

The number of cut scenes and changed ideas is staggering, especially when you consider how close the final product still is to the original; interestingly, the most prevalent reason for the removal of material was the fear that the film would simply be too frightening for audiences to enjoy (and, in fact, even in its expurgated form Universal was forced to quietly settle lawsuits from theatregoers who actually fainted or went into shock at first seeing Chaney's hideous visage). The story was so effectively told that the suspense and horror were too much for audiences of the 1920s, well before the boom in horror pictures and the ensuing race to see who could frighten the most efficiently. If the film as it stands now is still as frightening as it is - and, despite its flaws and very dated format, it is chilling in its own right - then imagine it in its original, uncut form from before the 1929 version, and then imagine ever further back to what it must have been like before its most terrifying scenes were removed.

 

I also want to publicly thank Riley (because he's totally reading this, I'm sure) for pointing something out that, somehow, entirely escaped me when I watched the film (maybe it's in the cut bits?): when Erik brings Christine down to his rooms, he places her in a swan-shaped bed. I'd noticed that there was a swan-shaped bed in the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries, and again in the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film, but I hadn't realized that they were drawing from the very first film. What a strange element to carry over between films... perhaps because the contrast of a traditionally pure, graceful creature (that could equate to Christine) is stark and revealing beside the hideous worldliness of Erik? Or because the presence of that particular piece reveals a little bit more of that longing for beauty that Erik has? Or just because filmmakers like detail homages?

 

The book just continues to be a treasure trove, including yet more fabulous pictures and notes on parts of the plot that were cut (including Phillippe and his tragic death, and the graveyard scene, both of which were deemed too morbid to remain in the final film). Somehow, like the swan bed, I managed to not completely grasp the concept of Simon Buquet, who is the brother of the murdered Joseph Buquet and who leads the mob in chase of the Phantom at the end of the film; most of his scenes were cut, but I can see the connection now to the 1992 Perkins/Daughton graphic novel, which also used a vengeful Buquet-brother for its mobs purposes; maybe Perkins saw or heard about at least part of the earlier cuts of the film.

 

I was both delighted (because I like learning things) and horrified (because I learned a disheartening thing) to find that there had been a snafu involving my very favorite moment of the film, in which Erik holds the mob off and then reveals his empty hand, effectively committing suicide. Originally, the Phantom was meant to hold the mob off with the supposed "grenade" in his hand, but when he opened it, it was supposed to be to reveal the handkerchief which Christine had given to him, which he let flutter away as he allowed the mob to kill him. Fantastically poignant! But, somehow, when the film reels were being cut together, someone spliced in a rehearsal version of the scene in which Chaney had not been holding the handkerchief, and the correct footage could not be found when the error was discovered. So the rehearsal scene is the scene as it stands today; while I'm sad for what might have been, the Phantom's suicidal choice is not diminished too badly, in my opinion, since Chaney's fabulous acting of the Phantom's capitulation is intact. Instead, we got a different statement for that final scene; where the original showed the Phantom quite literally letting go of Christine and consigning himself to death, the empty-hand final version instead allows the viewer to see a comment about the emptiness and ultimate dissatisfaction of all the Phantom's tricks and illusions when he gives them up for a final time.

 

Riley may not be quite in the uber-academic habit of citing his sources to the fullest, but when it comes to the film, he doesn't have to. As if fans of the film weren't delighted enough yet, he includes NOT ONLY the entire finished script of the film, NOT ONLY two other partial scripts of different drafts, and NOT ONLY the entire press book, he also exhaustively discusses the changes between the original 1925 film that was shown in theatres and the "re-silent" version of the 1929 talkie - which is the one that I've seen. Sadly, he notes that there is currently (at least, currently as of 1999) no known complete version of the 1925 film left in existence; Universal Pictures burned all their silent film reels in the 1950s in order to make room, and the film only survived at all because there was a talking version of it. He notes that there is hope; there may still be reels somewhere in a storage space or the hands of a private collector, especially in Europe or Australia where the distribution lines ended, and that a copy may yet surface.

 

Mentioned almost in passing, as well, is the fact that after the 1925 film's release, Leroux (oh, yeah! The old man was still alive then!) actually tinkered with the idea of writing a sequel himself, getting as far as the idea of the Phantom surviving his supposed death to lead the daroga on a Europe-wide hunt for clues before abandoning it. How different might our perception of the story be in that case? Riley points out, however, that there is some question that Leroux's comments on the idea may have been humorous, as he was very fond of making fun and appears never to have approached the idea of writing a sequel seriously. Universal intended to make a sequel to the film as well, but after Chaney's death in 1930, all plans were dropped, and it wasn't until the 1941 Chinese sequel to Song at Midnight that an honest-to-god sequel of the story (in some form, anyway) was made.

 

Rounding the book out is a short reading list (including Leroux - he prefers the Hildebrandt-illustrated edition - Kay, and Perry) and a nice article on the rest of Leroux's works and his contribution to mystery as a genre. I'd say that was it, but it isn't; there is literally just so much fascinating material in this book that I cannot share it all in a review (and I wouldn't want to, anyway). It's an absolutely marvelous, obvious labor of love, and I can't recommend it enough to anyone with even a passing interest in the film. It is utterly fascinating.

 

Prior to reading this book, I would have thought that most DVD versions of this film out there were the same, but, armed with new knowledge, I've discovered the Milestone Collection's Ultimate Edition, which includes both the 1929 version with all its talking and technicolor sequences restored, and an earlier black-and-white version. I don't know which version that black-and-white one is or where they got it (it's been a decade since Riley's book was published, after all, in which it's entirely possible that someone might have found a more complete copy of the film), but you can bet that the second I've paid for the groceries, I'm throwing all the rest of my pennies into the fund to get a chance at seeing if there are significant differences. I don't know exactly what those two versions entail, but I do know that my version is definitely the least complete (and most readily available) one out there, and I would dearly love the chance to compare.

 

In the end, this book managed to do what the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film, despite its very focused efforts, could not: it made me intensely nostalgic and, at least for a little while, invested in an art form that I had only been interested in peripherally. Riley's passion for the silent films of yore and his sorrow over their destruction is tangible, moving, and eloquent. His heartfelt hope that the film will at some point be restored and his dedication to the preservation, at least in word, of the silent film era, is best summed up in the final quote from actress Lillian Gish that he includes at the end of the book:

 

"We are the only civilization in history to have a visual, moving record of our time. How will history remember the America of the 20th century? As a people who worried more about filling their wallets while they let their most valuable national art treasures crumble to dust? Or will we preserve that moving image to show our children how great a people we were?"

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